Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 780 - 795)



  Q780  Chairman: You can reflect on that while I ask Mr Walker.

  Mr Walker: One instant reflection would be that it is possible to use the local levy—indeed, we do this as a matter of principle with the committee in Yorkshire—as a form of leverage to bring in other people's money. That is very effective.

  Q781  Paddy Tipping: One of the things that Pitt acknowledges and you acknowledge is that there are a lot of players in this field. The Pitt solution seems to be at a national level with Defra taking on a greater leadership with the Environment Agency having an enhanced role and having wider powers. What I am not clear about is where do your organisations fit in under Pitt?

  Mr Walker: In some ways it is not surprising that he does not mention Regional Flood Defence Committees because he was looking very much at the operation of the incident and the response to the incident and the lessons you learn from it. Regional Flood Defence Committees are not involved in incident response. We can learn lessons from it too—and so we do—but we are not directly involved in that part of the process. We support the notion of the Environment Agency having a stronger co-ordinating and strategic overview role; that makes a lot of sense. Sir Michael Pitt's report does not say much about the regional level at all and there is a role to be played in terms of bringing together at the regional level because catchments go well beyond local authority boundaries; they are not always coterminous with regional boundaries but there is not a bad fit in many catchments. There is a role to be played in bringing together the bottom-up bit with the top-down bit and we can do that. There is an issue around bringing local accountability to bear a bit more on the Agency at the local level and we can also in other practical ways work with local stakeholders to make more local things happen. In the round there is quite an important place for that regional sphere. Before I leave that, we talked a lot about planning earlier on in the session and I would not want to overlook the regional level here either. Following the Treasury's sub-national review of economic development we should consider the responsibilities of Regional Development Agencies who will be taking on overall strategic planning for the region. We will be arguing certainly that we need to look at adaptation issues to climate change in that process, including of course flood risk management and how we take account of that in the way that regional strategic planning is done.

  Q782  Paddy Tipping: One of the problems is that Mr Farr's area does not fit in with the government offices by any means. You also mentioned, Mr Farr, earlier on the notion of the Water Framework Directive and river catchment base and the planning for that. How do all those mesh together? What is your role in that?

  Mr Farr: I think that really there is an advantage perhaps in coming at this from an almost purely catchment orientated approach. I have made reference also to the issue of the Welsh border which is now more significant in many respects, particularly in terms of funding and decision making, than the catchment, but the catchment still exists as it always has in terms of the carrier of the water. Therefore having that perspective is actually very important. I think it is the natural boundary and therefore it should be protected. It also means that within that context you can produce some relatively consistent decisions or at least approaches to water based issues and then they get referred up to higher authorities who are either in a position to take a political decision on it or a financial one, but at least they are well-guided thereby. I would hesitate to say that we should sit in total judgment but I think in an advisory and part-funding capacity we have a lot to offer. I would just add that the emergency planning officer from Newark and Sherwood came to address us in our flood defence committee meeting earlier this month about what initiatives they have taken since the summer. It obviously went down really well; it was entirely appropriate and picked off this point about local people getting more engaged in the whole issue of flood management and flood risk management particularly. Also, with the majority of local county councillors on it, you find that it resonates with them, they take up the point and away they go and these initiates spread further and wider. There is an engagement with all the local authorities through the RFDCs which brings the Agency—which is a body which tends to be more closely associated with policy and the local authorities are closer to the grounds of the issues there—and links them in a sort of intellectual capacity in terms of taking arguments forward and allows the debate to take place.

  Chairman: Colleagues, I am going to cede the chair to David Lepper as I have to go and represent the Committee on a committee that represents all the select committee chairs. My apologies that I will not be able to hear everything you say, but I can assure you I will read the transcript with keen interest. Thank you so much for what you have already said. David Lepper is in the chair.

In the absence of the Chairman, David Lepper was called to the Chair

  Q783  Lynne Jones: I want to ask you about the performance of the Environment Agency. I will start by addressing Dr Ryder because earlier you were expressing concern at the lack of use of the broadcasting abilities of the Met Office. Who were you criticising there? I know from some work I did that there were concerns about the delay in both the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency acting on the warnings on Thursday 19 July where they did actually hone in quite accurately on where the flooding was and yet it was not until the next morning that we had the flood defences caught up in traffic. What were you getting at? If you were not getting at the Environment Agency you need not spend too much time talking about it.

  Dr Ryder: No, I was not getting at the Environment Agency and I was not defending the Met Office. What I was saying was that there is a problem which has been well analysed by Sir Michael Pitt through the concept of surface water flooding and the lacuna is that it is not the responsibility at the moment of the Environment Agency and therefore the procedures within the Environment Agency are based on the idea of measuring water in rivers, watching the levels change, having models that predict how those changing levels here will impact on levels further down stream through the flow of the water. It is very much about flooding from rivers. What we got this summer—we also had it in that awful event at Boscastle too—was flooding essentially caused by intense, prolonged, sustained and very localised rainfall. What to do about that? To simply say that that is beyond our remit, we cannot do anything and no warnings are issued, or actually to do what I would like to see happen and that is essentially by embedding the use of weather radar which actually tells you the intensity of the rainfall over an area with a resolution of a few kilometres, very close time to minutes as to when the rain will fall, and because it is a two dimensional picture essentially you can integrate the amount of water that has fallen on a catchment of any size you wish down to the resolution of the radar. That is not routine practice within the Environment Agency because it is incidental in a way to their main business of forecasting the evolution of the rivers. I think that is a weakness.

  Q784  Lynne Jones: Whose fault is that? Surely the Environment Agency has the ability to say, "Look, we could take this into account, why don't you let us" or "We're going to do it anyway".

  Dr Ryder: They have not done those things. They have focussed on the things for which they are essentially responsible. It is not a matter for the Met Office to say, "And as a result of this very intense rainfall falling on Boscastle there will be flooding in Boscastle". No-one is doing that; there is a gap. From the evidence that you have had and certainly from conversations I have had with my ex-colleagues in the Met Office and within the Environment Agency they say they much invest more in the numerical models that will provider longer term forecasts than these actual measurements. There is a difference between a forecast that "Six hours ahead the rain will fall on Boscastle" or "It is now falling on Boscastle, shall we do anything with that information?" That is where I think more could be done, but it does mean that you would be encouraging the Agency to do that work even though it is not part of its formal remit. I hope I will persuade the Pitt Review to see this as an interim measure to be taken before the undoubted work that needs to go on between the Met Office and the Agency, to do that job with higher resolution models, the very thing that Sir Michael said.

  Q785  Lynne Jones: With the models that they have the Environment Agency could have acted had it used the information from the Met Office. You think it could have actually issued warnings even though it is not strictly its job because it does have that ability?

  Dr Ryder: I do. There is a difficulty about it and that is that you would have to be prepared to put up with a higher rate of false alarms, by that I mean an alarm that flooding of this kind from intense rainfall was going to happen but it might not.

  Q786  Lynne Jones: What is an acceptable amount of false alarms?

  Dr Ryder: Can I take you to the example of a gale warning at sea for ships? The objective there is never to miss a gale because if you do people die. If ships that are not equipped to be operating under gale conditions are at sea people will die so you accept there will be false alarms and there are many occasions when gales are forecast at sea and they do not actually quite make it. That is viewed by the marine community as quite acceptable because they have got used to that idea. Any attempt to do this type of forecasting, this type of approach would certainly need an educational programme, it would certainly need an approach to the problem that was different to the one that exists at the present time. I have not had this debate with the Agency but this is probably why they are reluctant to go down this route. I have had discussions about elements with the Environment Agency but not at a corporate level. They are reluctant to go down this route.

  Q787  Lynne Jones: Can I ask your colleagues about their assessment of the performance of the Environment Agency and are there times when you have had disagreements with them and how were they resolved?

  Mr Walker: I would like to pick out just one point on the Met Office as well which is that in the last few days in Yorkshire to help us be able to see what was likely to come in advance a Met Office expert has been sitting in with the Environment Agency and working with the Environment Agency forward planners. That has been enormously helpful in getting a higher level of accuracy about when to issue warnings and so on. On the subject of warnings, on the downside people responding to warnings incur cost and inconvenience and so on—usually one hopes very much for the best. But the risk of putting out warnings which are not actually needed of course is the cry wolf problem. If it happens repeatedly people will disregard warnings and it is already difficult enough to get people to sign up for the warning service and one does not want to do anything that will put them off further. Moving onto your main question, I have a very high regard for the performance of the Environment Agency. We have many discussions, many about whether they are sticking to budget, how they are deploying resources, how they are developing their catchment flood management plans and, as we have indicated already, sometimes there are frustrations about pace and so on but not, I think, about direction. Perhaps just reflecting on the lessons learned exercise which of course is your focus, one area where I thought the Agency could have been sharper in the summer in my part of the world was in its external communications. It found itself with events moving faster than its ability to respond so it was always dealing with the rumour and counter-rumour and was not ahead of the game in getting accurate messages out. By the time they had done that there were inaccurate ones in the public domain and that is never helpful. As I am sure you know in crisis situations communications are always very difficult and can always be improved, but I think the Agency themselves recognise that that is something they need to work on.

  Q788  Lynne Jones: I detect some disagreement; what level of inaccuracy in terms of warning is acceptable? Would that depend on the nature of the warning? If it was something you would only need to take minor inconveniences that would make a difference or you could end up doing a lot of very inconvenient actions to no avail.

  Dr Ryder: There is quite a theory about this use of probabilistic forecasts. Supposing I were to say to you that the probability of your house being flooded is 10%, what should you do? What you should do in response to that is to take those actions that would cost you very little but the consequences if the flood were to occur would be very high. The classic example is to move the children's photographs upstairs. It costs you nothing to do that but if you were to lose those in the flood the cost to you would be enormous. So there is a theory, a proper thought through cost to loss ratio but I do not want to bore you with all of that. I do want to get across, if I may, the idea that there is an approach to this that is logical and clear and it needs to be handled in those ways. As Jeremy has said, you cannot do this without an educational programme so how must we take it forward? We must take it forward with a strategy that is going to exist for years and not try to do it overnight. Against myself and my technical background to all of this, that is a very legitimate reason for saying we should not try to do it at the present time because we have not explained the background of what we are trying to do and the limitations of what we can do. You asked us to try to give an example of an area where there was some scope for improvement and that is what I have tried to do in that specific area of forecasting.

  Q789  Patrick Hall: I would like to follow up on Dr Ryder's fundamental point about forecasting and what is measured by the Environment Agency which I think is perhaps more significant than how the Agency runs its media operations. Am I misunderstanding what you said in your evidence to this Committee about flood defence committees actually not only advising the Agency but having power over the Agency, determining each year the local three year business plan, approving the programme of work and monitoring their performance? Does that not mean you have real power and therefore surely you have the ability to get the Agency to listen to the points that certainly Dr Ryder has been making.

  Dr Ryder: This is a very difficult question. I would be surprised if you had not picked up in the comments that have been made earlier about the legal provision for flood risk management or flood defence. It is within the law that the Agency is required to fulfil its obligations in flood defence through regional flood defence committees which is completely out of line with the accounting officer responsibilities that lie with the chief executive of the Environment Agency, who is accountable to Parliament as an accounting officer. The ultimate judgment as to the proper use of money within flood defences does not lie with us, it lies with her. Over the recent years—and I am glad to have the opportunity to describe this process to you—we have clearly thought about this, we have discussed it with the chief executive, we have discussed it with the chairman of the Environment Agency, we have put proposals forward to them to find a sensible accommodation, to live within at least the spirit of the law but at the same time have a sensible working arrangement which makes maximum use of the expertise that we have, the local authority expertise that we have—each of the members that are appointed by Defra bring some expertise to the party—and I have to say the long experience of working. We are appointed typically for three years and then another three years; I have been a member and then chairman of my committee for ten and a half years (a member for six years and four and a half years as chairman) so we have that to bring to bear. What we do, as officers in local authorities do, guided by the officers, is that we have an oversight of the final programme that has been put together that has actually been seen, acknowledged and approved up at headquarters by the Environment Agency so they are comfortable and we accept it. You might say it is more of an endorsement than an approval. In that way we have some ownership for that programme of work. I think there is engagement by the local authorities that they have had an opportunity to scrutinise the programme in an informed and professional way.

  Q790  Patrick Hall: And change it?

  Dr Ryder: Yes, and change it indeed. The other thing we do which is a recent addition is that we meet once a year with the directors who are responsible within the Environment Agency and look at the flood defence grant in aid allocation that is to be made to the regions, the sub-division that is to be made between the various functions that go into flood risk management—the things I spoke of earlier, the business of how much to go into development control, how much to go into mapping, all those other functions—and we sit down with them and listen to the rationale that they have put together as a national authority and we agree or disagree with them. We did that this year and, for example, we questioned quite a bit the amount of money that was going into maintenance. We were not entirely persuaded but we went through the arguments with them and became persuaded. We were not entirely comfortable with the amount of money that was going into flood forecasting and warning for the very reason that we recognised the severity and importance of this issue because of the surface water problems we faced this year. Our feeling was that we should be spending more money on this but then it was explained to us that the intent was to use this coming year as a period to revisit the flood forecasting strategy within the Environment Agency and we could expect higher expenditure in years two and three of the comprehensive spending period. So again we had a much closer understanding of what was in the minds of the directors and eventually the board of the Environment Agency and were able to support that line, which I know the Agency board was comfortable with and appreciated that we had scrutinised this, again independently, as with a degree of expertise in the way I have explained. I am sorry if that sounds a rather complicated way of doing this work but that is practically how it is being done at the present time. I have to say that on behalf of us all we are very comfortable that that lives with the spirit of the law as it stands but it is also pragmatic and sensible and we feel deals with our accountabilities, particularly downwards to the communities that we serve, but also enables the chief executive of the Environment Agency to satisfy her accountabilities as accounting officer.

  Q791  Mr Drew: The problem with giving people information that actually proves to be alarmist is that I now have people who sit at home waiting for the flood. In the first session I was asking Sir Michael about planning and the implication for flood plains and so on. I wonder if you would want some greater authority—indeed powers—to be able to say, as Lynne was saying about Lyon where effectively the French have red demarcations which means "do not build, this is not acceptable"; is that where we should be going in this country, where we should have a much clearer identification of areas where we should not build or which we should allow to flood because that gives us that level of protection for those areas that we really want to protect.

  Dr Ryder: I have spent a fair bit of time looking at PPS25 and its implications not just where it is now but also future implications for surface water flooding, the kind that was so worrisome this summer. I have to say that my personal answer would be the same as Sir Michael's was and that is essentially to give PPS25 time. I think it is a much stronger situation now; things were getting better about controlling development on the flood plain where that was dangerous previously and this has only strengthened that. I am sure that as parliamentarians you will look at this issue again once there has been an opportunity for PPS25 to do its job because it is well thought out. The practice guide for PPS25 is not yet fully written but it has the hooks within it to do many of the things that I think are causing you the most anxiety.

  Q792  David Lepper: There does seem to be general agreement about this. What do your colleagues think about it?

  Mr Farr: In response to the question about the role of the RFDC within the Environment Agency, at the regional level Peter explained in real depth the situation as far as the chairmen representing the regions at a more central point, but the reason the Environment Agency staff do take the Flood Defence Committee seriously because they regard it on the positive side as a form of public approval and at that level they do not always get want they want. Sometimes they are told, "Sorry, we are not agreeing to that; you will have to go away and think about that again" so it does actually work, particularly at the regional level which I think is where the thrust of the legislation was designed to put it. In terms of performance I think again there is approval for Sir Michael Pitt's position. I actually think that the Environment Agency is particularly strong in its strategic overview rules, there are some very bright people who spend their time in many cases creating formulae which allow very fair decisions to be made; even if people do not like them at least they know how and why they have got to that position. I think that is important but there are pieces missing there and obviously surface water flooding is one and I think the more the role of the Agency can be expanded in that respect to make it more complete and broaden it, then so much the better. However, I would say that I would like—and I know others feel this way—to see them try to set themselves at least a target to spend as much as possible on the ground rather than through the office. I appreciate that is necessary and quite likely what Sir Michael Pitt will generate. It is going to make it almost impossible for them to achieve that in the short term but in the longer term in the public interest, seeing things happen in your area, is a far more important result of the Agency's activities in flood risk management. I would like to see that happen; it has drifted the other way recently and I think that that should be redressed. There is no criticism of performance but I think there is a sense of setting them an objective that perhaps they not always look closely enough at.

  Q793  Paddy Tipping: Dr Ryder, you talked to us a lot about the notion of local broadcasting and the fact that local broadcasting becomes more reliable nearer the time.

  Dr Ryder: Yes, it does.

  Q794  Paddy Tipping: The essential problem is that we do not understand the relationship between the weather and the natural environment and the built environment because our understanding of geophysics is not detailed enough and presumably we need to do more work on that to be able to understand the relationship and take the necessary action.

  Dr Ryder: It is a huge problem. If you take a pan of boiling water it is easy to predict that the pan will boil but it is not at all easy to say where each individual bubble will be and depending on what you are trying to get out of the experiment is either important to you or it is not. That is why in a way winter time flooding generally, as it has been this year, by and large caused by widespread meteorological phenomena with broad scales, against the summer flooding which is intense convective activity, sometimes tide features on the land, sometimes just randomly occurring just like the bubbles in the boiling pan. I am very optimistic. I think the direction which Sir Michael Pitt mentioned and I know the Met Office have put into their evidence that higher resolution models is the right way to go.

  Q795  Paddy Tipping: Mr Farr made an important point about doing things on the ground. One of the things that comes out of the Pitt Review is a greater enhanced role for the Environment Agency, maybe around forecasting, maybe around flood alert. Given that the budget for the Environment Agency now looks pretty firm from the first of April, is there enough money in the pot to enable them to take on this enhanced role?

  Mr Farr: That is a very difficult question. I suppose you could say there is never enough but at the end of the day they are structured to prioritise within the Agency to make difficult decisions. If I could add to what I said a moment ago, I think the corollary of an enhanced central strategic role should be a greater devolution of some of the spending decisions to the regional and local situations. I would pick out particularly the distinction between capital and revenue in that respect. I think it is right that for the sums of money involved and the nature of the projects that spending on capital projects is made centrally. I think that is reasonable, no matter how disappointed people are in regions that their particular area does not get done, I think that is an important means of managing the capital quantum, given that, as we have talked about local levy before, you have those local opportunities to pick up the pieces where you see fit. I think in terms of revenue spend, particularly of the maintenance budget here, I feel that the Agency would be better advised to leave a degree of fluidity in the means of spending to local bodies or bodies with whom they have some authority so they are not exactly handing the money over with no strings but allow them a degree of latitude because I think—and this comes back to Mr Drew's comments about internal drainage boards—sometimes on the ground you find you have to make difficult decisions but they tend to be slightly instinctive but fundamentally reactive. Sometimes those decisions cannot be made a long way from the point of impact and I also think that it is not necessarily productive to try and work to meeting targets when it is more about achieving the art of the possible. If you see a problem you might have to make a difficult decision but at least you have next year to catch up. I think that rolling management programme is better suited away from the centre with the right management controls being applied to handing over the money. That, I think, is an area where the Agency will probably find itself having to go because there is too much to do when you start looking at every individual bubble as Peter Ryder just said.

  David Lepper: Gentlemen, can I thank you for both your written evidence and your evidence to us this afternoon. I will say, as Mr Jack when sitting in this seat always says at the end of a session, if there is anything else that you wish you had said to us that suddenly comes to mind afterwards then please do write to us about that. Unfortunately we cannot change anything which you have said. Thank you very much.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 7 May 2008